Many years later, A’Lea Smith, 27, would look back to the point in her life when everything changed.
It would come before the six-figure salary and the crushing debt, before the haunted eyes of COVID-19 patients and her own devastating loss.
It would involve a grocery bag full of clothes, $200 in her pocket, and a Greyhound bus ride – heading south.
Smith was a shy girl, raised by her grandfather in a small town in Georgia.
He was her mother’s dad, a hero to her, a man she called “Pap Pap.”
As long as she can remember, he was her champion, trying to protect her even on occasions she can’t recall – like the time he went after her alcoholic father who had beaten and locked her in a barn, leaving her 3-year-old body with too many switch lashings for authorities to count.
Her grandfather always told her, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”
When times get tough, there are two options, he’d say: fail or keep trying.
During the last 10 years of her grandfather’s life, when he was in and out of Intensive Care Units, the devotion shown by the nurses caught her attention.
They doted on him, treating him with compassion, even the times he turned sassy. Watching the nurses, Smith thought this was something she wanted to do with her life.
But after high school, she found herself adrift.